By Neil Shurley
Maegan Azar is the associate professor of acting & directing at Furman University and is currently directing “The Tin Woman,” which opens June 19 at Centre Stage. “It’s about a woman who’s had a heart transplant who goes off to meet her donor’s family. It sounds heavy, but it’s really very funny,” Azar says.
Azar moved to Greenville eight years ago along with her husband, Thomas, who is also a theater artist. As well as teaching and directing, Maegan Azar often acts in local productions at both Centre Stage and The Warehouse Theatre. The Azars also have a 1-year-old son, so we feel lucky that Maegan was able to take some time out of her schedule to talk about the Greenville theater scene.
When did you first become involved in theater, and when did you know this is something you wanted to do long-term?
I was in my first show when I was 9. I was an orphan in the musical “Annie” — it seems so cliché, but it’s true! I was very fortunate because my father was the principal of a high school when I was growing up, and that was how I was in “Annie.” And I was in a couple of other shows where they needed kids, prior to my getting into high school. I also did community theater and theater camps growing up, and I was very involved in my high school theater program. But I was also an athlete, so I sort of straddled both those words. When I got into undergraduate, I went to East Tennessee State University on an academic scholarship and played on the NCAA volleyball team. I auditioned for a show and I was cast in “Godspell,” and I thought, hmm, I really like these people, they feel like my people. Theater programs are always so inviting and accepting, and I think that’s one of the beauties of having a theater community. Everyone’s welcome and the diversity of ideas and opinions are so instrumental to the developing mind. So I quickly realized I should not be a biology major, and after two years playing volleyball, I realized I’m not going to be able to do this for the rest of my life, so I changed my major to theater and I went full in.
What has been your most challenging role and why?
I sort of practice what I preach to my students, in regards to my career. Furman is a liberal arts institution and is set up as a generalist program, meaning students cross-train in all the different elements of theater. And I do that with my own career as an actor, director, and teacher, but I’m also involved in the Southeastern Theatre Conference as vice president of administration for the board, and I am a current board member and also past president of the South Carolina Theatre Association. And I have to say that of all those things, teaching still provides me the biggest challenges. One of the beauties of teaching is that you never know what you’re going to walk into in a classroom. Day to day, you have possibly 16 different minds, hearts, and spirits approaching material that can be very subjective, that can be emotionally challenging, that can be intellectually challenging in many different ways, so you never know what you might walk into. Which I think is very exciting and has definitely set me up so that I have greater empathy when I’m approaching a role, and when I’m working with constituents as an administrator or as an advocate for theater artists.
What has been your most enjoyable role and why?
A couple of years ago, I played a character called Lanie in “Two Rooms” over at Centre Stage, as part of their Fringe Series. So, it’s interesting how your personal life and your professional life can kind of coincide, right? In that story, Lanie’s husband has been captured and is being held as a political prisoner and my husband — though not captured — was away in graduate school at the time. I’m clearly not going through what Lanie is going through — but, it was kind of hard to devoid myself of the fact that I was on my own quite a bit while Thomas was away. I was working with Matt Reece and Kerrie Seymour, and the three of us have worked together on several projects, so we have a very safe working atmosphere and being able to take emotional risks was allowed and comfortable. And it was the first time any of us had worked with Kent Brown, who can really push actors in a very logical, productive way, in that he separates himself from the emotional element of directing and allows the actor to explore that on their own. So being able to be in that environment where I knew I could take those risks with really challenging material was extraordinarily special.
What’s your favorite play?
I’m not one of those people who’s drawn to one specific style of theater. I love shows that really bend form and the way stories are told — in circular ways or backward flashbacks. And I have a background in physical theater, so I’m drawn to stories that can be told in more physical ways. We don’t really get to see a lot of that in the professional theater scene in Greenville, but if you go to colleges and universities you get to see that sort of experimental work. I love musicals, and I love shows that can transport you away from the divisiveness of the everyday world. Right now I love a good love story. So I can’t really say I have a favorite play. I am getting to direct one of my bucket-list shows in the fall. I’ve got two students who want to do a senior capstone project and they’re both very interested in pursuing musical theater when they graduate, so we’re going to do “Daddy Long Legs,” and it’s going to open in September. It’s just a small two-person musical, but I love the story because it’s about a woman who’s finding her own voice in the world and she falls in love with someone who’s supporting her in her college endeavors, and it’s, like, thank goodness there’s still good in the world!
Which theater artists inspire you?
I try to read everything that Anne Bogart writes, that Sarah Ruhl writes, but it’s so hard to keep up. Lynn Nottage is another. But I also follow a company from the U.K. called Frantic Assembly quite closely. They are responsible for the movement work in “Curious Incident” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” and ever since I saw the original production of “Curious” at the National in 2012, I’ve followed their work. They have this insane ability to tell stories through vibrant, raw, and honest physical theater. I just love watching what they are doing. And the work that they do with at-risk youth in London is something that truly excites me.
What do you most enjoy about Greenville’s theater scene?
One of the things I most enjoy is the ability to see an actor in a show at Greenville Little Theatre and then see them in a show at South Carolina Children’s Theatre and then see them in a show at Centre Stage and then see them in a show at Warehouse, and see what happens to that actor as they progress. I find that the more work I do, the more I am inspired by the collaboration in the room. I like to work with people who are excited to tell a new story, and you can really tell when you see people in various places that they are just dying to get up there and tell a really good story. You can see it. Some of us work primarily at one theater or another and that’s fine, because we all have our different passions and interests, but sometimes it’s really fun to see those people that work everywhere and see how different the experience can be, no matter what theater you’re in.
What is your hope for the future of theater in Greenville?
As Greenville is becoming more and more of a destination for theater artists, I’m hopeful that we will start to see more and more theaters supporting artists as professionals. We have people working in this town who have seven plus years of undergraduate and graduate training, and then are continuing to train in various aspects of their field, and more and more we’re starting to see that boards recognize that and are putting their money toward having quality arts entertainment. Even audiences understand that the actors you see on stage are going from working full-time 9-to-5 jobs, taking an hour dinner break, and then working four to five hours at rehearsal every night in order to make that show possible. Wouldn’t it be great if we could pay artists a living wage to be able to do that? I think we’re progressing. Since I’ve been here, that’s something I’ve been happy to see — dollar amounts rise for the work that’s being done. It’s important that we continue, as artists, to advocate for that.